A new journey begins
Fresh off seven years of active duty,
Justin Nielsen is ready to serve in Verona
By Joshua Sigmund
It’s 2007 – the peak of the Iraq “Surge” – and Justin Nielsen is in hour two of standing in a four-and-a-half-foot-deep concrete runoff in the Diyala Province just north of Baghdad. His unit – part of the 25th Infantry Division – had been sent to that area from Kirkuk to reinforce the 82nd Airborne Division in its effort to take back the province from the Insurgency. Staring through his night-vision goggles from his position of cover and concealment, Nielsen was scanning intensely for Insurgents fleeing from the isolated house as his platoon conducted its raid.
“There was a brief exchange of gunfire and I saw movement in the palm grove just along the property,” Nielsen recalled. “A couple minutes later, I saw eyes looking right at me from only a few feet away.”
It turned out to be a wild dog.
As the sun came up, and the search was called off, Nielsen finally sat down for a moment and collected himself. To engrain the events in his memory, and to unknowingly provide discussion fodder for his future coworkers of this example of a noteworthy night, Nielsen snapped a photo of the water in which he had been standing.
In his seven years of active duty, Staff Sergeant Nielsen was deployed twice for a total of 27 months in Iraq (2006-2007) and Afghanistan (2010).
“After seven years, (the military) was either going to become a career, or it was time to finally become a cop,” Nielsen explained. “I always had an interest in law enforcement; always knew that’s what I wanted to do. I figured that the military would help me be a little older and more mature to get hired later. I had a lot of reasons to stay in the Army, but I decided with my wife that we would move back home (to Verona) so I could finally pursue becoming a police officer.”
Cut to today, and Nielsen is now a few months away from finishing his academy training to become a Verona cop. And he’s already fitting in with his future brothers in blue.
“We’re sitting there one night at 3 a.m. and we started talking,” recalled Verona Local 72 State Delegate Ed Carattini Jr. about the long nights spent together when Nielsen worked as a full-time police dispatcher in town. “He starts telling me a couple stories and I asked questions about being over in Iraq and Afghanistan. He pulled up pictures and started narrating them and they were incredible. The things that all these guys went through and did and what they had to do… I could never imagine being in that situation.”
Nielsen was quick to acknowledge the dangers he faced during his tours.
“The biggest thing that comes to mine is that you’re in a very hostile environment,” he stated. “There’s a lot of stress being there for that long, and your biggest concern is to protect the people around you. But you’re well trained and they prepare you for everything the best they can. It’s like being a police officer; you get trained the best you can and get put in situations that are dangerous and you just react the best that you can.”
It’s Nielsen’s propensity for helping others that has made him a great soldier, a dedicated volunteer firefighter and member of the Verona Rescue Squad, as well as a strong candidate for a career in law enforcement.
“When I was a firefighter, I enjoyed working with civilians,” Nielsen said. “You’re very disconnected with civilians in the military. Being a police officer is the best of both worlds; you get to protect people and work with them. The transition is not easy, coming out of the military and fitting in again in the civilian world, but being in law enforcement where people understand the values that are important to you can make the transition easier.”
Something else aiding in Nielson’s transition is the transferable mindset that he picked up in the military.
“You’re already loyal to the cause, understand the sense of duty and have respect for yourself and other people,” he added. “Honor, integrity… they all apply. When I was doing dispatch in Verona, I saw how everybody talks to each other. They have a loyalty to protect each other and a strong sense of duty because it’s what they want to do; they want to be there. If you have it in your heart – if you’re someone who is driven by service – then in either of these career paths you’re going to have a good chance of doing great.”
Carattini echoed that sentiment: “The entire department has lots of respect for the guy. I think being in the military gives you a good foundation for diving into law enforcement. It helps a lot and makes you a better cop. I’m confident going into a door with him. I’m going to be confident working with him 110 percent.”